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A dollar too many

We’re surely not alone in being a bit thrown by the sheer size of Proposition 1, headed for voter decision next month. It’s enormous, but not only that: It’s so enormous, and covers so massive a scope of space and time, that estimates are almost useless.

Most often you see $47 billion – that is, yes, billion with a “b” – but depending on how you count, it could amount to as little as $18 billion (that trifling amount) to $160 billion. The proposition’s backers estimate $17.8 billion (or $28.5 billion if you factor inflation). Some perspective from a Seattle transit blog: “I know I feel like I’m beating a dead horse here, but we don’t know inflation with an accuracy over 50 year periods! The number makes no sense because three years of no inflation could shrink the end number by 20%, and three years of massive inflation could raise it by 50%. We don’t know inflation.”

And last week, King County Executive Ron Sims – one of the most active public transit backers in the region – threw a bomb into the discussion with his critical guest opinion in the Seattle Times:

If approved, we will see the largest tax increase in state history. Starting in January, car-tab taxes will triple, and the sales tax will be 9.5 percent (10 percent in King County restaurants).

I look at this package with the knowledge that in 50 years, my oldest son will be 80 when it’s paid off. My granddaughter will be 55. Their ability to make public investments relevant to their lives and times will be severely limited by this package. Should I be so lucky, I will use my pension until I am 110 years old to pay my share!

The benefits of this package are far from immediate. Even if on schedule, 60 percent of new light rail won’t open until 2027. Light rail across Lake Washington is at least 14 years away. The Northgate extension is 11 years away.

There are some things to say for it.

Transportation upgrades in the Puget Sound are inevitable, sooner or later, will probably get even more costly later, and are going to be horribly expensive whenever they’re done. And this is a plan for doing them that meshes public transit with road construction, which – so the theory goes – is the way these days to pass a transportation plan in the King County area.

It has an impressive collection of backers, including loads of businesses – the major chambers from Everett to Tacoma are represented – environmental groups, labor unions, scattered civic organizations and political leaders, including Senator Patty Murray and Governor Chris Gregoire, local government officials and lots of legislators (Democratic, naturally; there are a few Republicans scattered around). It has a substantial campaign budget (Keep Washington Rolling had collected about $886,000 as of the end of August, far more than what seems to be the leading opposition,, which had collected just $50,993).

The argument for has some coherence:

A comprehensive transportation system will improve our quality of life.

Addressing major chokepoints will reduce congestion.
Building a fast, safe and reliable light rail system across the region will help lift people out of congestion and make it easier to live and do business here.
More transportation choices means a cleaner environment

Building an additional 50 miles of light rail to connect Bellevue, Redmond’s Overlake area, Mercer Island, Northgate, Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood,Alderwood, the 164th Street/Ash Way area, Des Moines, Federal Way and Tacomawill take cars off the road and provide better mobility options.
Creating nearly 12,000 park and ride slots at bus, commuter rail and light rail stations will help commuters get out of their cars.
Upgrading our infrastructure improves safety

Replacing and retrofitting overpasses and bridges vulnerable to earthquakes.
Reducing congestion will allow first responders to move more quickly during an emergency.

Well, yes . . . But we keep coming back to all those tens of billions of dollars, and the uncertainty surrounding them, and the questions thrown out there by Ron Sims . . . The campaign is planning a press conference tomorrow to rebut Sims, but eviently there’s some doubt any of the major visible hitters – Gregoire, Murray, other highly visible types – will be there.

So you do begin to wonder if some of the backers of Prop 1 just might break their pick on this one.

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